THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
MAGICIANS AND DEBUNKERS
INVESTIGATING THE SUPERNATURAL WITH FLAIR
“All professional mediums cheat.”
That was a statement that expressed the thoughts of Camille Flammarion, the famous French psychical researcher. However, like so many other investigators of the day, he was also convinced after nearly 60 years of study of paranormal phenomena, that mediums could be genuine. As mentioned, he was not the only one to think so. Hereward Carrington wrote: “Many genuine mediums will frequently resort to fraud when their powers fail them, or when phenomena are not readily forthcoming.” He said that medium Eusapia Palladino, whom he considered to possess authentic powers of the highest order, “would constantly trick whenever the occasion for her to do so was presented.”
Spiritualists learned to live with a certain amount of fraud as, one after another, even the most respected mediums were caught impersonating spirits or attempting to trick the sitters at their performances. Like some of the scientists, they believed that a single case of fraud was not enough to completely dismiss the work of an otherwise truly gifted medium. This permissive attitude toward occasional fraud explains why, even after an exposure, most mediums were able to continue filling their séance rooms. Combined with the need for the public to believe in something extraordinary, the Spiritualist moved thrived for decades.
Although many researchers could easily detect even clever fraud, and could take it into account in their final conclusions, it was a matter of debate as to whether or not the careful investigator could never be fooled.
Lively arguments on this subject came up during the discussion of Sir William Crookes’ paper on mesmerism and Spiritualism, presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1876. Crookes was confident that the controls that he applied when testing mediums would make fraud impossible. Sir William Barrett of the SPR disagreed, arguing that a skilled conjurer or magician could be equipped with devices and, under whatever conditions were imposed, re-create whatever effect the mediums could produce.
In spite of the fact that controls in the early days of psychical research were rather slack by modern standards, a great number of mediums were exposed as frauds. In 1876 ---- the same year that Crookes and Barrett debated the subject ---- three mediums who had large followings were caught red-handed as frauds.
Francis Ward Monck, a minister turned medium, was challenged by a magician who insisted on searching the medium during a séance in Huddersfield, England. Monck ran into a room, locked himself in, and managed to escape through a window. Later, a pair of stuffed gloves (which had posed as mysterious “spirit hands”) was found among his belongings. Monck was arrested and he was later placed on trial for fraud. Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace, who had investigated a number of mediums, appeared as one of the defense witnesses. He claimed that he had seen Monck manifest a “spirit woman” without trickery but his testimony had little effect after Sir William Barrett took the stand. Barrett claimed that he had once caught Monck simulating a partially materialized spirit with a piece of white muslin cloth on a wire frame. Monck was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to three months in prison.
Dr. Henry Slade, an American medium known for spirit writing on slate blackboards, visited Britain that same year. Professor Ray Lankester was determined to expose Slade as a fraud. Together with another investigator, he visited Slade and observed his techniques. During a second séance, Lankester suddenly seized the small blackboard before the “spirit writing” was to take place. He found that a message had already been written on it, exposing the medium as a fraud. Lankester than wrote a scathing letter about Slade in the Times on September 16 and then sued him for obtaining money under false pretenses. The case was heard on October 1. Once again, Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace appeared for the defense. Despite his support, Slade was found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison at hard labor. The sentence was later thrown out under appeal and Slade quickly left England before Lankester could come after him again. When he returned to the country two years later, he used the false name of “Dr. Wilson”.
William Eglinton was the third popular medium to be exposed in 1876. The accounts of his séances are some of the most dramatic that have been recorded and include a number of materializations that took place outdoors and in broad daylight. Thomas Colley, the Archdeacon of Natal in Southern Africa and the Rector of Stockton in England, finally exposed Eglinton. Archdeacon Colley was an eager psychical researcher and he cut off pieces of the white robe and beard of a spirit that Eglinton allegedly manifested. Later investigation showed that the items that he snipped off exactly matched some muslin and a false beard that was found in the medium’s suitcase. His exposure of Eglinton did not make Colley discredit all mediums. He was a firm believer in the genuineness of other mediums, including Francis Ward Monck, and had once offered a large sum of money to a magician to try and duplicate Monck’s materializations with trickery. The magician attempted to manifest a spirit but failed.
This reinforces the strangeness of mediumship --- that although three well-known mediums like Monck, Slade and Eglinton were exposed in fraud, many reputable scientists and psychical investigators had no doubts that all three men were also capable of extraordinary paranormal feats that did not require trickery.
From the earliest days of Spiritualism, there had been a running battle between mediums and magicians. In 1853, just five years after the Fox Sisters gained fame in Hydesville, a magician named J.H. Anderson of New York issued the first challenge. He offered a monetary award to “any poverty stricken medium” who could produce raps in the public hall where he gave his regular performances. The Fox Sisters were among those who accepted Anderson’s challenge, but Anderson backed out and, amid catcalls and hisses from the audience, refused to allow the mediums on the stage.
One of the greatest of the early rivalries between mediums and magicians involved the Davenport brothers. As described earlier in the book, Ira and William Davenport were professional mediums who were the first to popularize the spirit cabinet in their performances. This special cabinet had three doors at the front and a bench running lengthwise inside. The center door had a small diamond-shaped opening covered by a curtain, through which various phenomena would manifest. Before each performance, members of the audience were free to inspect the cabinet, and also to check that the Davenports, who sat astride the bench, facing one another, were securely tied and unable to move about. Within seconds after the doors were closed, the brothers were able to produce raps, musical sounds and a variety of other happenings. During part of the séance, an audience member was even allowed to sit on the bench between the brothers.
Although the phenomena they produced was typical of the Spiritualist séances of the day, the Davenports were ambiguous about their powers. They never presented themselves as Spiritualists but on the other hand, insisted the manifestations they created were genuine. While in England, they became the subject of controversy. They held séances every night for more than two months in a hall in London. Various committees studied these demonstrations without finding any evidence of fraud but, regardless, there was widespread public opposition and even hostility.
Early in 1865, the Davenports toured the English provinces and for the most part, the shows did well, but there were a number of problems encountered in some of the towns. At Liverpool, in February, two members of an inspection committee selected by the audience used a complicated knot to secure the brothers.
The Davenports protested that the knots were too tight and cut off their circulation, but a doctor who examined them disagreed. They refused to sit and asked one of their assistants to cut the ropes. A riot broke out and the Davenports quickly left Liverpool.
Finally, in March 1865, the Davenports played at the Cheltenham Town Hall and encountered John Nevil Maskelyne, one of England’s original conjurers, and the only investigator ever believed to have uncovered their manifestations as fraud.
Maskelyne was one of the most popular of the early British stage magicians. The son of a saddlemaker, he was born in Cheltenham in December 1839. Intrigued as a boy by an entertainer’s “dancing dinner plates”, he practiced until he was about to keep several dishes whirling about at the same time on a table top. At 19, he began working as a clockmaker’s apprentice and constructed his first piece of conjuring equipment: a small chest with a secret panel. He could lock a borrowed ring inside, bind the chest with tape, and then secretly extract the ring as he gave the box to a spectator. The box was so well-constructed that it managed to withstand even the most rigorous examinations.
On March 7, 1865, Maskelyne attended the séance by the Davenport brothers at the Cheltenham Town Hall. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, heavy curtains were fastened over the windows to darken the hall. Lamps were used to illuminate the stage where trestles had been erected to support a three-doored wooden cabinet that was similar in size and shape to a large clothing wardrobe. The doors were standing open when Maskelyne entered the hall. Planks seats were nailed down the middle and a guitar, violin and bow, two hand bells, tambourine and a trumpet had been placed inside.
A lecturer introduced the Davenport brothers and then called for volunteers. Maskelyne and several other men rushed to the front of the theater to inspect the paraphernalia. The committee members lashed the medium’s wrists behind their backs and tied their ankles as they sat facing each other in the cabinet. Then, the lecturer closed the doors and signaled for the lamps to be put out.
Almost immediately, bells rang and flew out onto the floor of the stage. Pale, ghostly hands waved through the apertures in the center of the cabinet. A tambourine jangled, a guitar strummed and a violin played eerie music. Yet, when the lamps were lighted and the doors opened, the brothers sat tightly bound, exactly as they had been when the séance had started.
As mentioned, England was sharply divided over whether the Davenports were genuine mediums or clever tricksters. Purely by chance, Maskelyne discovered that they were frauds. A ray of sunlight from a poorly draped window had flashed briefly on the stage during the performance and from his vantage point on the side of the stage, Maskelyne had been able to see into the cabinet through a crack in the door. He saw Ira Davenport vigorously ringing the bell! He knew that if one brother was able to free himself, then the other one could too.
Maskelyne told several people what he had seen but a clergyman who had been watching from the other side of the stage scoffed at this explanation. Determined to prove his point, Maskelyne persuaded a friend to help him build a cabinet so that they could work together and duplicate what the Davenports were doing.
Once they learned the technique of slipping their hands out of, and back into, tightly knotted ropes, producing “spirit music” was easy for the two men. After three months of practice, Maskelyne appeared at Jessop’s Gardens on June 19. Trick by trick --- and they stressed they were tricks --- he and his friend duplicated the entire Davenport séance. Five days later, the Birmingham Gazette offered a long account of the performance and showed that Maskelyne had proven that spirits were not necessary for a “spirited” séance. Of course, by then, the Davenports had moved on to the Continent and were being wined and dined by royalty. Most of their audiences had no idea that their clever act has been exposed as just that --- an act.
Maskelyne went on to become one of England’s most famous magicians. In later years, he would continue to offer “spirit shows” and duplicate the methods of mediums in his performances. He passed away in May of 1917.
Probably the first two books ever published debunking the methods of fraudulent mediums appeared in 1907. They must have been essential reading for psychical investigators of the day. The first, from Hereward Carrington, was called The Psychical Phenomena of Spiritualism and the second, by David P. Abbott, was Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. Both books did a thorough job of revealing the conjuring techniques that could be used to produce a variety of different “ghostly” effects. Of course, it should be remembered that just because these effects could be duplicated, did not mean that some of them could not have occurred by supernatural means. On the other hand, they sure had a lot of people wondering…
David P. Abbott, a magician and a member of the ASPR, based his book on personal observations of scores of phony mediums. In one chapter, he describes the seemingly astonishing performance of a woman who gave séances in a theater. She asked her audience to write down questions for her, sign their names on the paper and then keep the papers in her possession. Them, from the stage, she would answer the questions. The effect was startling but Abbott revealed how easy it was to do with the aid of accomplices. Because many of the members of the audience did not have paper with them, assistants handed out pads of paper for their use. These pads were scored into sections so that each person could tear off the square on which he had written his question, keep the paper and then pass the pad on to someone else who needed it. The tablets, however, was especially prepared with a developing wax so that the writing would leave an impression behind that could be read later.
Assistants collected the pads and then seemed to place them in front of the medium on the stage. What they actually did, though, was switch the pads, giving her blank ones and smuggling the used ones under the stage. These were quickly developed and then handed to a confederate with a radio transmitter. The medium had a small receiver tucked behind her ear, and hidden by her hair, which was connected to a carefully concealed wire that ran down to copper plates in her shoes. When she stepped on two nails hammered into the stage floor, she was able to complete the radio circuit and hear her accomplice read the questions. In addition, other assistants in the theater picked out people who wrote questions on their own paper, and read their questions while collecting the pads throughout the audience. As soon as they could, they wrote down the questions they had spotted and sent them below stage to be read along with the others. Most people came away from this performance believing they had witnessed something paranormal.
A similar trick was used to astound some theater audience members. The attendees were invited to write questions on pieces of paper, addressing their questions to dead friends, relatives and loved ones. They were also asked to sign their names. Each question was then sealed in an envelope and given to a medium. The medium would then hold up the envelope, read the message without ever opening it and pass along an answer from the spirit world. This was one of the simplest frauds to carry out. All that it required was an assistant to pretend that the first envelope belonged to him. The medium would hold up the envelope, make up a fake message that was inside and the assistant would claim the message was his. The medium would then open the envelope to “prove” that he was correct about what message was inside. What he was actually doing was opening the next envelope, which belonged to an audience member, and memorizing the message. He would then ask the question and answer it ---- supposedly never looking inside. Then, he would open the next audience member’s envelope and pretend it contained the message he had just read. And so on, and so on, staying one step ahead of the audience as he psychically “peered” into the envelopes and “heard” messages from the other side.
Almost 50 years after Abbott wrote about this “question and answer” trick, a British medium made a small fortune by very similar methods but using equipment that was more sophisticated. William Roy has been described as one of the most audacious fake mediums of the modern times. Before his exposure in 1955, he was one of the most popular mediums in England --- only to be denounced by the Spiritualist publication, Two Worlds.
According to accounts, much of Roy’s success came from duping sitters using a microphone-relaying technique that demonstrated “direct voice” communications from the spirits in full light, an achievement that was beyond the abilities of his rivals. To do this, he ran a wire under the carpet from the microphone and amplifier to two brass tacks, the heads of which protruded above the carpet. He adapted a hearing aid as a miniature loudspeaker and attached it to the cuff of his sleeve, running wires to it up his sleeve, inside of his jacket and down his trouser leg to his shoes. Here, they connected to the soles with two metal plates, one on each shoe, so that when he stood on the tacks, the circuit was completed and an assistant could produce voices through the miniature loudspeaker. The voices would then come from Roy’s wrist, far enough away from his mouth to avert suspicion.Roy, whose real name was William George Holroyd Plowright, was paid quite well by a British tabloid, the Sunday Pictorial, for a five-installment confession in 1958. He shamelessly posed for photographs with his “spirit voice” apparatus, which eventually found its way to the Metropolitan Police Detective Training School.
He also boasted of the way that he had gained his wealth by taking advantage of grief-stricken people, researching their histories and lives. He examined voter’s lists, visited the National Registry office to look over birth, marriage and death records and used newspapers to scan obituaries and the details of wills. He kept all of this information in a card file index and one swap information back and forth with other fake mediums. “We phony mediums traded information --- like swapping stamps,” he admitted.
When sitters arrived for one of Roy’s séances, they were asked to leave their coats and handbags in a waiting room. Roy listened to their conversation by way of a concealed microphone before they entered the séance room. Meanwhile, an assistant searched their bags and coat pockets for further clues in letters, tickets and receipts --- any information that Roy could use to confirm his “psychic” powers. His séances were “high-tech” for the time, using the latest special effects to create spirit voices, music and mysterious lights. Masks and cheesecloth were also used by Roy to create “materializations”.
Spiritualists knew that Roy was a fraud as early as 1951 but agreed not to reveal it in return for his promise to stop conducting séances and leave the country. Roy did so for a time, but then came back to England and started back to his old tricks. After Two Worlds exposed him as a fraud in 1955, he sued them for libel and with the case in the court system, the newspaper was prevented from saying anything else. When Roy abandoned the lawsuit in 1958, he agreed to pay court costs to the magazine editor and immediately after, Two Worlds released all of its evidence concerning his fraud. At first, Roy continued to deny the charges and then when the Sunday Pictorial offered him a large sum of money, he cheerfully confessed. By the time the story was published, Roy had left the country once again.
In the tabloid article, he ended the story with this statement: “Even after this confession, I know I could fill séance rooms again with people who find it a comfort to believe I am genuine.”
In 1968, he was given the chance to see if this was true --- it was. A medium using the name Bill Silver was discovered to be William Roy. Once again, it was a Spiritualist newspaper, Psychic News, which exposed him. The story revealed that some of the sitters even know the medium’s real identity as William Roy, but were still convinced by his phenomena, which included voiced communications from beings who lived on Venus. The sitters included a Catholic Bishop and some of the members of the Beatles! When challenged by the newspaper, Roy had the nerve to claim that his earlier confession had been a “pack of lies” and that he had always been genuine.